Empathy, the Antidote for Shame

Lina, single mother of three, is in the line up at the grocery store. She feels rushed to buy dinner and get home in time to prepare it. Sarah, her 3-year-old daughter, who she just picked up from a new daycare, is overtired and whiny. She starts grabbing chocolate bars, which are so conveniently placed in her view, and puts them into the cart. Lina, says “no” and places the bars back on the shelf. Sarah continues to reach and struggle to climb out of the cart. She starts crying at the top of her lungs. Lina turns beat red. She is clearly embarrassed about being stuck in the line with a screaming child.

A couple of customers seem to stare at her. She hears a woman’s voice behind her, “When kids are this overtired they belong in bed, not out shopping at the busiest time of the day.” Lina pretends not to have heard the comment. She feels shame for not being able to calm her daughter. In fact, she feels like a complete failure as a mother. She wants to just take her daughter and leave the store without buying the groceries, but that would be really embarrassing, she thinks, and what would they then eat for dinner? She takes deep breaths and continues moving forward in the line up.

When she reaches the cashier, the woman just smiles and gently says, “That’s a tricky age.. I still remember when my kids were that young…”. Lina smiles back relieved. “It’s not easy, is it?” says the cashier and pulls out a lolly pop. “May I give this to the princess…?”

Lina feels like a weight is lifting. She feels validated, seen and understood. Instead of being judged, she is acknowledged as doing her best. What she is experiencing is empathy.

In her research, Brené Brown has collected different definitions of how we experience empathy. Receiving empathy is “feeling emotional and physical warmth”, “feeling understood”, “feeling wrapped up in a blanket”, “feeling validated”, “feeling you are not alone because somebody else gets you” and “feeling somebody hears you or feels you”.

In her shame, Lina felt alone and unworthy as a mother. When the cashier extended empathy to her, the messages was, “You are not alone. We are alike and connected. I get your struggles. I am as human as you are.”

We feel completely alone when we are in shame. We might feel like we are the only one who experiences fertility struggles, or the only one who feels they are not a good parent, or the only one who feels not thin or attractive enough, or the only person who has an addiction, or the only one who was cheated on, or the only one who was physically, emotionally or sexually abused, or the only one who hasn’t found her/his perfect partner and so on.

There also is a difference between embarrassment and shame. We experience embarrassment in regards to a behaviour of ours. We feel embarrassed when we have perhaps said something we shouldn’t have said, or when we have done something that we view as a mistake, or when somebody points out something we are self-conscious of. Embarrassment is fleeting, and we know we are not the only one who has that experience.

I have been a coach for 14 years and have always scheduled my own appointments. It has happened throughout the years, that I have “dropped the ball” and double booked or thought I didn’t have an appointment when I did. Now, each of those incidents have caused me a fair amount of embarrassment. I had to claim responsibility, apologize and hope that the other person would still want to re-book. In most cases, the incident was forgiven. Because I deep down know and believe that I am, overall, a reliable and organized person, there was no shame attached to making these mistakes for me. However, they certainly were embarrassing.

Like all of us, I have also had moments of shame in my life, whether that was in regards to having an alcoholic family member, around my fertility struggles in my twenties, about weight gain at different points in my life, or in regards to marriage struggles or relationships ending. Most of these moments of shame had nothing to do with a specific behaviour of mine but all to do with feeling judged and feeling not good enough in some way.

We all know shame, even though some people have more shame to carry due to their personal history, but, as Brené Brown points out, “to have the capacity for shame is to be human”. Feeling shame is a common human experience, yet, shame—unlike guilt—does not serve us. Feeling guilty allows us to make amends for a behaviour and gives us a chance to become a better person. However, when somebody shames us, or when we shame ourselves, we are being defined by the worst mistakes we have ever made or the worst situations that ever happened to us. It feels like there is no way out of the shameful role we have played. The label sticks, whether that is “infertile”, “disappointment”, “unemployed”, “bad mother / father / wife / husband / daughter / son”,  “jealous girlfriend / boyfriend”, “financial failure”, “unwanted child”, “weak”, “angry”, “controlling”, “victim of abuse”…  A shame label always takes away our power to grow, to leave the past behind, and to show up differently.

According to Brené Brown, experiencing shame is “like being trapped in a deep and dark hole”, unable to see and feel that we can be a better version of who we are in a given moment in time. Shame means feeling disconnected and unworthy of “being a part of”. As humans, we are evolutionary hard wired for connection, and our fear of disconnection, of being excluded from our community, will always be present. We cannot get rid of shame or be completely shame resistant because we need the connection with others, but we can develop a certain shame resilience.

Shame resilience allows us to move through a shaming experiencing without twisting and shaping ourselves into sacrificing who we are. That means proudly being who we are “without performing, pleasing, perfecting or improving” (Brené Brown). Shame resilience happens when we move “from shame to empathy, from fear to courage, from blame to compassion, and from disconnection to connection” (Brené Brown).

Shame is a highly individualized experience. It is very personal. What is simply embarrassing for you, might bring up intense shame for somebody else due to their own history, and vise versa. When we are with another person who is experiencing shame, we have to be very careful not to project our own ideas of whether something is shaming or not onto them. Minimizing their experience does not help them, but rather increases the shame. When we minimize, the message we are articulating is, “you should not feel shame”. The other person ends up feeling ashamed that they are experiencing shame.

The only antidotes to shame are love, compassion and empathy. Shame hates being spoken. Shames grows and thrives through secrecy, silence and judgment. However, if we bring empathy to a situation which evokes shame, shame cannot survive.

Empathy, according to Theresa Wiseman, has four parts:

  1. We need to be able to take another person’s perspective and to see the world as the other person sees it.
  2. We need to be truly non-judgmental.
  3. We need to be able to understand what the other person is feeling.
  4. We need to be able to communicate our understanding of the other person’s feelings.

There is a difference between sympathy and empathy. Sympathy says, “poor you. I feel for you. I am not having your experience, but I feel sorry for you.” Sympathy exacerbates shame. Empathy, on the other hand, is like saying, “I feel with you.” The two most powerful words to heal shame are an empathetic, “me too”.

You might wonder, how you can have empathy with somebody who has had an experience you have never had? We don’t need to have gone through the exact same situation to know what it feels like. Empathy is not about connecting to a specific experience, but about connecting to the emotions an experience elicits.

Having had the same experience that somebody else has had can sometimes even get in the way of empathy. We are individuals and our experiences are very different. Instead of assuming that the other person feels the way we felt in that situation, we can be curious about what the other person is going through and we can offer to be with them in that experience.

 

If you are curious about finding out more about working with embarrassment and shame, contact me for a free phone consultation. I offer sessions for individuals and couples.

Angelika

905-286-9466

greendoorrelaxation@yahoo.ca

I know your time is valuable and I appreciate you reading my blog. If you are enjoying my articles, you can subscribe to receive an e-mail notification whenever I post a new blog. All you need to do is to enter your email address in the field in the left sidebar. Thank you for your support!

Why Do I Feel Stuck?

Listen to the blog article as an extended version on my podcast, or read it below!

Helen got the opportunity to do a creative video project to market her business. She was excited. Yet, instead of starting to work on it, she cleaned up the entire house first. Then she started cooking a meal. Then she thought she should return some phone calls. She realized she was procrastinating. Does this sound familiar? She didn’t understand why, because a part of her really wanted to do this video and that part could see the benefits of it.

When she started going inside to explore, she found she had a protective voice, another part inside of her, that was trying to keep her from doing the project because it was afraid what would happen if she did. She called this protector the “Busy Housewife Part” because it kept her busy with other tasks. It had a fear that if it allowed her to do this project, she would end up being embarrassed.

When she explored this further, she discovered that there was yet another part which was a younger child part that was holding embarrassment and shame. As a child, she had a couple of experiences where she made herself visible and was ridiculed and embarrassed by the other kids and teacher. The busy part was protecting the “Embarrassed Child” part in her. Realistically, it wasn’t likely that Helen would embarrass herself and be laughed at for making the video, but our parts are stuck in the past. They interpret current life situations based on what happened in childhood and act accordingly.

 

from Self-Therapy workbook by Bonnie J. Weiss

Helen used Internal Family Systems Therapy or in short IFS to explore this issue of procrastination and to shift out of it. IFS works with parts or subpersonalities. They are called parts in this model because that’s the word we naturally use. We say for example, “There is a part of me that wants to lose weight but there is another part in me that really wants me to eat pizza and chocolate cake tonight.” Or we might say, “A part of me wants to find a new job that’s less boring but another part of me feels it’s better to stick to what is familiar and safe.” Or, “A part of me wants to commit to this relationship but another part of me is afraid I’ll get hurt”.

Illustration by Karen Donnelly

We all have many different parts. Some of the famous ones are the Inner Child, the Inner Critic, the Perfectionist, the Pleaser, the Pusher/Driver and the Controlling Part, but there are many more. Each part has its own perspective, its own feelings, even its own memories and especially its own goals and motivations for us.

In IFS, there are two main categories of parts: protectors and exiles.

Protectors

Our protectors have two roles. One is to handle the world, or rather to influence the way we handle the world, for example the way we interact with people. Their goal is to protect us from painful experiences. Protectors also directly try to keep us from feeling the sadness, grief, shame or pain that we are already carrying inside from past experiences.

Illustration by Karen Donnelly

Those protective parts are dedicated to safety and homeostasis. Unfortunately, protectors also attract what they are trying to avoid. If I, for example, have a fearful protector, or a mistrustful protector, or an angry protector which are trying to help me to avoid situations that could hurt me, their behaviour often is part of creating the anticipated hurtful situation. However, in order to give up their role and transform into a more beneficial role, they need to be honoured, respected, reassured, appreciated and understood. They need to learn to trust us when we are in Self, a concept I will elaborate on more below.

Managers

Mangers are proactive protectors. They try to keep us in control to prevent feelings of hurt or rejection. There motto is “never again”, based on a painful experience in the past which they are trying to avoid from happening again.

Examples for these proactive protectors are a Controlling Part, a Planner, an Analyzer, a Judgemental Part, a Pessimist, a Caretaker, a Pleaser, a Worrier, a Perfectionist, a Rational Mind, a Responsible Self or our Inner Pusher or Driver.

from Self-Therapy Workbook by Bonnie J. Weiss

 

Firefighters

Firefighters are responsive protectors. They instinctively react when our vulnerability is triggered. Just like real firefighters, they are focused on stopping the “fire” a.k.a. the problem or pain. They don’t care about consequences.

Examples for firefighters are an Angry Part, an Attacker, a Vengeful Part, but also parts that retreat, hide or stone-wall in response to what another person does or says. The third type of firefighters are distractive parts that convince us to engage in an addictive behaviour.

These firefighting parts often feel lonely, rejected, isolated and shamed because nobody likes them. Nobody in the world likes to see them come out, but also internally they are judged. The other parts don’t usually like the firefighters either.

Exiles

The second main category of parts are call “exiles” in IFS. Exiles are usually young wounded inner child parts that carry pain, occasionally from adulthood, but mostly from childhood. They might feel inadequate, ashamed, afraid, lonely, sad, scared and so on. Or they carry limiting beliefs, for example that they are not good enough or that people are dangerous and so on.

Helen’s exile, which she ended up calling the “Embarrassed Child”, felt ashamed. Helen wasn’t aware of this most of the time because her protectors kept her wounded child shut away or “in exile”, so that she didn’t have to feel the pain that it was carrying around, in this case, shame.

Illustration by Karen Donnelly

 

A third and really important concept in IFS is the concept of the Self.

The Self

The Self is your Aware Ego, your true self, it’s your spiritual centre, your essential self, your core self or your soul. It is who you really are when you are not taken over by your parts. If you are not overidentified with an exile or a protector in a given moment in time, then you are in Self. The Self is the healing entity you already hold inside. It is meant to be the wise leader of the inner system of parts. The Self is eternal, knows all and is not affected by any trauma. The Self energy connects us to all there is in the world. It is characterized by the 8 C’s of Self-Leadership: calmness, curiosity, clarity, compassion, confidence, creativity, courage, and connectedness. It manifests as being present, heart-open and consciously aware.

“A person who is leading with the Self is easy to identify. To rephrase a joke, you get the impression that ‘the lights are on and someone is home.’ Others describe such a person as open, confident, and accepting—as having presence. You feel immediately at ease in a Self-led person’s company, sensing that it is safe to relax and release your own Self.” (Richard C Schwartz, Internal Family Systems Model)

Richard Schwartz, the founder of IFS, who is one of the most authentic and unpretentious people I have ever met, points out that very few people are “constantly and fully Self-led” (Schwartz) and he modestly includes himself in that statement. We all carry to a varying degree burdens of feeling rejected, abandoned, humiliated, shamed or traumatized. Naturally we put on masks to protect these inner wounds.

IFS is a path towards moving into increased Self-leadership by degrees. The more we access our Self and heal our inner pain, the more we can relate differently to our own parts and also to the people in our life. When we understand and practice that we are more than our parts, that we are Self, our relationships become more harmonious, we are less reactive in crisis and less overwhelmed by emotional situations. We are able to let our protective masks come down and give others permission to do the same.

 

If you are curious about finding out more about working with your parts contact me for a free phone consultation.

Angelika

905-286-9466

greendoorrelaxation@yahoo.ca

 

Join me on Sunday, August 12 for a workshop in Mississauga from 9:30 a.m. – 5:30 p.m. You will learn how to work with your parts, especially the critical inner voices and transform them, how to parent your inner child parts and heal them, and how to acquire the ability to lead more and more from Self. For more information or to register, please call me.

I know your time is valuable and I appreciate you reading my blog. If you are enjoying my articles, you can subscribe to receive an e-mail notification whenever I post a new blog. All you need to do is to enter your email address in the field in the left sidebar. Thank you for your support!